Interview with Fereshteh Forough, founder of Code to Inspire

Code to Inspire is the first computer coding school for girls in Afghanistan. We started our partnership with them in 2020, right in the middle of the global COVID-19 outbreak, by raising much needed emergency funds to help provide internet access to girls who had to continue their work at home when the coding school was forced to close. We also contributed professional tablets to kick off a new advanced graphic design programme at the school. 

Molly Keisman, our intrepid Good for Girls’ volunteer, spoke with Fereshteh Forough, founder of Code to Inspire to tell us all about its groundbreaking work.

M: Tell me about Code to Inspire

F: We opened in November of 2015. We wanted to offer a safe and secure educational environment for women in Afghanistan between 18-25 years old, where they would get technical skills that could be translated into job opportunities.  We offer our classes free of charge because a lot of the girls come from a challenging financial background, and it’s important for us to include all girls who are interested, even those from families that are poor. When they graduate, students can either find a job within the local community and get hired there, or we can outsource projects to them so they can get paid and work remotely. They can also become entrepreneurs and create their own start-ups and then hire more women. These are the major aspects of the work we do with Code to Inspire. 

M: How many girls have been to the school, and what kind of classes can they take?

F: Since 2015, we’ve educated more than 250 girls in our coding and graphic design classes. Right now, we only have one location, which is in Herat, a city in the west of Afghanistan. The school is like an after-school program although the school is open from 7:00am to 6:00pm. Our coding classes are mainly web development, mobile application development, game design and recently we added blockchain technology to our curriculum, and also a graphic design class. The classes are taught in person. We have five mentors who teach different classes, in Farsi, but the presentations and questions are in English. The majority of mentors are my former computer science students. I was teaching in the university and I’d reach out to ones who had graduated who had a couple years of programming work. We have both female and male mentors. We have four coding mentors and one graphic design mentor, and our graphic design mentor is actually an alumna of our graphic design class. So we are excited to see if, in the future, we can hire more alumni as mentors. 

M: Which part of your work with Code to Inspire has made you the proudest?

F: Certainly the idea of providing equal opportunities and resources as well as pushing for gender equality in a country where 78% of women are still unemployed—it’s a big issue. And only 37% of women are literate, so just the fact that I was able to provide such impactful resources for young women to help them monetize their talents is very rewarding for me, and that is what kept us going with Code to Inspire. 

M: Where did your personal interest in coding begin? 

F: That’s an interesting question because when I was in high school, I actually was studying literature and was very interested in literature, philosophy, and anthropology. When I went to Afghanistan in 2002 and got into university, when I took the university exams, the system picked computer science for me. I didn’t pick computer science. I was very upset—I didn’t want to do computer science because I didn’t have any background in math or technical stuff, so it was scary for me. But my parents really encouraged me, especially because my English was decent at that time. They said that if you know English, that’s something that can help you and would be very valuable for the future and for a career. So they really encouraged me. When I went to start my classes, at first it was very intimidating because it was a lot of math and I really wasn’t good at math because I didn’t have any background. But then they added classes like introduction to algorithms, problem-solving, dealing with computers and getting online, that really inspired me. I liked the creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving aspects of it, which led me to then finish my bachelor’s in computer science and get a master’s degree from the Technical University of Berlin.

M: When you first started getting into computer science in college, were there any barriers you faced as a woman? 

F: There were certainly barriers. I’m talking about 2002 when we moved to Afghanistan from Iran (I was born in Iran and then we moved to Afghanistan one year after the fall of the Taliban). So you can imagine that it’s a country the Taliban just left, but there are a lot of extremists and Taliban in different parts of Afghanistan, and you could see signs of war. One aspect was infrastructure – in our city, we only had three hours of electricity and it would only come on when it was getting dark so you’d use whatever you could in that time. I didn’t have a computer at home and very few people had mobile phones—forget about internet connection—so the infrastructure was certainly an issue. Even in university, there were not a lot of resources in the computer lab and there were more men than women so you would have less opportunity to find an available computer. If you wanted to go outside and use internet cafes to work, not only was it expensive but there was also verbal and sexual harassment that you would face. It was very uncomfortable. It was very odd at that time for men to see girls going to internet cafes. You wouldn’t feel very safe and comfortable there. And there were more men at that time—there were like ten girls in the class compared to 90 or 100 boys. I was being vocal and outspoken, participating in a lot of projects and activities, and that was something that was against the normal routine of girls in Afghanistan who should be shy and not be active. That’s why not a lot of my classmates or people outside liked it, and I faced backlash, threats and harassment just for being vocal. So there were a lot of challenges both culturally and in terms of infrastructure and resources.

M: You mentioned how supportive your parents were about your coding; can you speak a little more on that? 

F: We’re a big family—eight kids and five of us are girls. My mom was always supportive of what we wanted to do and always emphasized that we had to finish our education and get a job and be independent. My parents moved to Iran as refugees and left everything behind. A lot of refugees had to start from nothing. She learned how to stitch and make dresses and sell them to bring income to the family to buy us school supplies and invest in our education. From that age, I understood how important it is to learn a skill that you can translate into some sort of opportunity that you can monetize and, through that, become independent. That was a great lesson for me. That was the reason that even though I was in Afghanistan and studying computer science in such a male-dominated culture, I felt such a freedom. 

M: Can you talk about your earliest inspiration for Code to Inspire? What sparked that idea? 

F: It was a journey in that I was always thinking about doing something in my life to give back. It was very personal because I was born a refugee and was denied access to education. I couldn’t wrap my head around why you should be deprived of access to resources because you’re different from other people. I knew the value of education, and why should a woman face backlash for being outspoken or pushing for gender equality?  I really wanted to do something to change this narrative and enable women to access resources, be independent and create a sisterhood community to support each other. I really wanted to do something particularly in tech, and I was thinking and drafting ideas, meeting different people. I believed it was time – I had enough resources, and I knew a lot of people who believed in me. I was fortunate enough that I could get the right help. I started Code to Inspire in January of 2015 and over a few months, we raised thousands of dollars and we received laptops and donations from Overstock. The school was up and running by November of 2015. 

M: Do you keep in touch with the women who have participated in Code to Inspire? Do the graduates stay in touch with each other?

F: Absolutely. We have different messaging apps that we put all the girls in. We have an overnight group and groups for each class separately with the mentors in it. Usually I try to do a call with the girls at least every one-to-three months to see what they’re up to and if they have suggestions or ideas. I haven’t been able to go back to Afghanistan since 2012 because of my immigration situation, so the girls only see my pictures or videos. I want to make it as personal as I can so they feel comfortable with me and can talk with me about any issue. So we do a lot of calls and we also have groups in which we post about work opportunities and announcements. And every few months or so we check in with the graduates and see what they’re up to and if they got hired.

Code to Inspire students at a coding class. [Photo courtesy of CtI]

M: How do participants learn about Code to Inspire?

F: When we started, we really tried to do it in person as much as we could. We went to schools and our mentors talked to girls in the schools and in their classes. We wrote our announcements on paper and posted them to bulletin boards in universities and schools. And also word of mouth — talking to friends and family. As we grew and social media became more popular in Afghanistan, we took advantage of Facebook for posting announcements and recruiting students. We also partner with a local television station that runs ads when we have openings. We use a lot of different mediums. We are fortunate that because our work has been recognized and families have seen its impact, it established us as a national brand. There are a lot of people who reach out to us and recommend us to other girls and families. It organically grew by itself. 

M: Has there been any pushback? 

F: In terms of extremists sending us threat letters or doing physical damage to the school, luckily they have never. But we play it very low-key. We don’t give the address or show the physical location or many pictures of the school. We also try to stay away from politics and controversial topics. We don’t involve ourselves in anything that could put the girls in a compromising situation. Sometimes we get comments on social media that try to demotivate the girls. At the beginning, there was a lot of that—people asking why we were teaching girls to code when it doesn’t have any benefit to them. They’re just going to get married and stay home, why are they learning games? But eventually, there was a shift when the girls created games and apps and got hired and made money. It was proof to those people that the program actually works. And we haven’t received that many critical comments since then.

M: What is your vision for Code to Inspire? 

F: Within the next five years, we would love to expand the school within Afghanistan and have a new branch in a new city every year. But also, we would love to create an online platform so we can reach girls not only in Afghanistan but also Afghan girls who are outside of Afghanistan and are interested in coding. We would love to create that online community for girls in STEM. Beyond Afghanistan, I think the model is very scalable. If we can find partners in other countries where the women have similar issues, we want to expand the program to those countries—especially neighboring countries. 

M: How can we get girls more interested in STEM? 

F: It’s about changing their perspective and showing them role models. When we started the school, it was so difficult to recruit students because when we were talking about coding and creating websites and games, they had no idea what that meant. I had to show them some games, apps and websites and explain how it could help them. Lack of knowledge about it was a big barrier and they didn’t know how they could make money off it. When we started, we had an introductory web design class for high school students. When the girls came, they were so shy. Some had never touched a computer or been online. They didn’t know what to do. It took a couple of months for us to get them to a level where we could start coding with them. It was so eye-opening and refreshing just to see how it changed their personality from being that shy girl who wasn’t active in class to being vocal and creative and having social media accounts, and caring about her work. We just need to create more role models and to make it easy and accessible for women to have exposure to STEM—to have opportunities to just try it out and experience it to see if they like it. A lot of those high school girls who came to our web development class said they’d like to continue in our school and take more coding classes. Some said they want to get into computer science in university. It’s a matter of resources and putting them right in front of them. And it’s important to see that there is someone else like you who is doing this. If there is no one to look at, it’s difficult to imagine yourself in that situation. 

M: Thanks so much, Fereshteh. Before we wrap this up, is there anything you’d like to add?

F: Yes, I’d like to add that we have outsourced about 40 projects so far, worth $27,000! All the money has gone into the girls’ pockets. The average monthly income in Afghanistan is $150, and some of our girls earn double or triple that money and bring it to the family. There have been families where the parents have called us and were very happy with their daughter earning income, that was so heartwarming to us. I’d also like to share that right now, especially with peace talks with the Taliban and with how the media portrays Afghanistan as a warzone, what we want to do with Code to Inspire is change that perspective and tell people good stories about Afghanistan—especially ones about women and education. I’m always inspired by Rumi and one of his quotes that I like is, “Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.” It makes me think of Afghanistan, a country that went through decades of war, but still under the ruins you can find treasures. I think the treasure is girls, and investing in their education so they can contribute to their community and to peace in Afghanistan and together help build Afghanistan 2.0 — the country we are trying to create where women are equally in power.

30 new coding graduates connect with Fereshteh over video conference at their graduation ceremony in Feb 2021 [Photo courtesy of CtI]